Greek to Me: Gods of Olympus

olympus-greek-mythology-wallpaperAre Greek myths befuddling to you? Have trouble understanding scholarly references to people like Icarus and Pandora? Don’t know the difference between Epimetheus and Eurystheus? Well, you need fear the Minotaur of ignorance no longer: Welcome to Greek to Me, my blog segment where you will learn about some of the most important and complex myths in the history of Western literature, all accompanied with beautiful art for your visualization! I believe that, given the history and the artistic omnipresence of Greek mythological themes, that knowledge of them is essential for a rounded education on Western culture. In this article, we’ll start from the beginning and give a brief summary of the famous gods of Mount Olympus.

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The mythical home of the gods, Mt. Olympus

Each of the Greek gods and goddesses were very well developed characters, with distinct and unique personalities. For those who do not know, each god and goddess was the patron of an aspect of nature or humanity and had special symbols of these patronages which are often used to identify them in art. They are also known by different names to the Ancient Romans, who worshipped them as well. The focus today is on the twelve Olympian gods, those who were believed to dwell on Mount Olympus. These included Zeus, Hera, Hestia, Demeter Athena, Apollo, Artemis, Aphrodite, Hephaestus, Ares, Hermes and Dionysus. In today’s article, we’ll cover the first seven.

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Zeus and Hera, accompanied by their symbols, the eagle and the peacock

First on the list is the famous Zeus. He was the god of lightning and ruler of all. After being rescued from being eaten by his father Kronus by his mother Rhea, Zeus defeated his father, rescuing his siblings Hestia, Hades, Poseidon, Demeter and Hera. He took kingship of the heavens for himself and assigned the rule of the Sea and the Underworld to his brothers Poseidon and Hades respectively. He was famous for many great feats of power, but most myths featuring Zeus center on his unbelievably numerous love affairs. His romantic escapades and attempts to hide his paramours from his wife provided much amusement to the ancient Greeks in their stories and plays. Zeus’ symbols included the lightning bolt or the mighty eagle, and his name to the Romans was Jupiter

Second is Hera who was, awkwardly, both the sister and the wife of Zeus. She was Queen of the gods and the patron goddess of women, marriage, and childbirth. She was very beautiful and was portrayed with a fairly clever, but haughty and vengeful nature. Zeus’ constant affairs with other women, both mortal and divine, made her jealous and bitter and she often tried to take out her anger on Zeus’ many illegitimate children since she couldn’t punish him for it.  Hera was known to the Romans as Juno and her symbols are most commonly the cow and the peacock.

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Demeter and Hestia

Hestia was the virgin goddess of the hearth, her symbol. She attended the sacred fire of Olympus. She was known as Vesta to the Romans, whose ‘Vestal Virgins’ famously attended the sacred Roman fire. Her sister Demeter, was goddess of the harvest and mother of Persephone, goddess of spring and flowers. Demeter was a generous goddess, willingly sharing the fruit of the earth with mankind and ruling over the seasons. Her Roman name was Ceres, and her symbols were grain and a sickle. Hestia is not featured in many myths, but is usually portrayed with a calm and motherly demeanor. Demeter is similar, but has flashes of protective motherhood and can be quite passionate and dramatic.

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Athena

My personal favorite of the gods and goddesses is Athena. She was said to have been born directly from the head of Zeus. In fear that his child would be more powerful than he, Zeus had swallowed Athena’s mother Metis. But the child developed in Zeus’ head, and eventually burst forth from his cranium fully grown as Athena. She was another virgin goddess, and being the offspring of the mind of Zeus, she was the patroness of wisdom and learning, as well as skilled warfare and handcrafts such as weaving. She was always pictured with symbols of war, such as a helmet, spear or a shield bearing the symbol of Medusa’s head. Her other symbols were the Olive tree, whose creation was attributed to her, and the owl, whose symbolism of wisdom lives on even in modern culture. Athena is of an intelligent, witty and strong personality. While a goddess of war, she is dignified and sophisticated and only very rarely does she lose her temper. She often assists heroes such as Perseus, Odysseus and Jason. Her Roman name is Minerva.

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Apollo and Artemis

Apollo and Artemis were twin brother and sister, children of Zeus and the nymph Leto. Apollo, known as Phoebus to the Romans, was god of many things: light, art, music, poetry, prophecy, archery and medicine. His most famous symbols were the lyre and the laurel wreath. He is of an unsurprisingly artistic temperament, wise, poetic and intelligent. However, his passions, both angry and romantic, occasionally flare over his better judgement.

His sister Artemis, Roman name Diana, was goddess of the Moon, archery, hunting, woodlands, animals and chastity, being another virgin goddess. She was also occasionally associated with childbirth, as the legend went that, after being born, she immediately assisted her mother in the delivery of her twin brother. She is often portrayed with an energetic, youthful and independent temperament and occasionally waxes very headstrong and a little spiteful. Her most identifiable symbols were the deer, her bow and arrows and the crescent Moon.

And so, these are the first seven of the Greek’s Olympian deities. Next time, there will a second article for the rest of the Olympians as well as the lords of the Sea and the Underworld. You’re well on your way to becoming a Greek mythological expert!

Hercules, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Disney

blog-picsHercules is probably among the most famous names in Western culture. Everyone knows who he is: The fantastically strong son of Zeus, the Samson of the Greeks! However, these days, a great many people, particularly my fellow Americans, know this information from something other than original Greek myth: the famously inaccurate and yet delightful Walt Disney Pictures.

The 1997 animated film, Hercules is one of the acclaimed movie members of the so-called ‘Disney Renaissance‘, their great comeback era after the 80’s. Possessing charming animation, equally charming characters and all of the bowdlerizing deviations from source material you would expect from a Disney film, Hercules’ tale of self-realization, sacrifice and heroism remains a staple of children’s cinema to this day.

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The Hipster Demon: “You can’t like Bohemian Rhapsody. Everyone likes Bohemian Rhapsody…”

I loved the movie back in the day. Of course I did: I was a kid! But eventually came a new era in my life: I became a Teenager. And with Teenager-ism came the dreaded Demon of Hipsterdom. No longer was I allowed to like the things everyone else liked. I had to be “unique” now and find a reason to dislike everything popular in favor of the obscure.

“Look how Disney ruins the Greek myths!” my Hipster Shoulder-Demon cried out at Hercules. And to an extent, the little Hipster Demon was right. There were many problems great and small. For instance, the irritating decision to use the Roman name ‘Hercules’ rather than the Greek ‘Herakles’ when literally every single other name in the movie is in Greek. I mean, come on, really? Another quibble is that the winged horse Pegasus is in the entirely wrong myth. Not to mention, in the kids’ movie, they have the cute pony formed adorably out of puffy little clouds, when the actual story goes that the vicious, killer, flying horse sprung from the blood of Medusa, spilled on the ground after Perseus decapitated her. Less cute, yes, but quite awesome.

hercules-removes-cerberus-from-the-gates-of-hellBut things get far more different than simple name changes and misplaced equines. The original story, as one might expect, is faaar less child friendly than the one coming out of Disney studios. For one thing, Herakles is most certainly not the son of Hera, but the demigod son of Zeus, king of the gods and Alcmene, a mortal woman. Hera is the hero’s mortal enemy, who loathes him for being the result of one of her husband’s many illicit affairs. Always searching for a way to destroy Herakles that she can get away with, Hera sends terrible madness upon him several times, eventually resulting in Herakles unwittingly slaughtering his two children, and in some stories, his wife Megara as well. A decent sort of person in the stories, the stricken Herakles performs his famous Twelve Labors as reparation for the murders, but the suffering doesn’t end there. He ends up being poisoned by his next wife, Deianira, who thought she was giving him a love potion. Unable to die of the poison due to his immense strength, Herakles writhes in agony, burned internally  by the poison until he orders his servants to burn him alive on a pyre to end his suffering. His wife, realizing her horrible mistake, then hangs herself in remorse.

Try wrapping that story up with a catchy musical number.

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Ha ha, I’m eventually supposed to kill you and our children.

 

However, missing all of this less savory stuff means that they missed a lot of the cool stuff too. Numerous movies could be dedicated to Herakles’ Twelve Labors, and many other amazing adventures involving other heroes, monsters, journeys and battles. But instead of telling about how Herakles defeated the Nemean Lion, or how he accompanied the Argonauts or choked Death until he gave back the soul of Alcestis, Disney decided to go a different route; by completely making something up. Sigh.

Being a child of the 90’s, I was first introduced to the story of Herakles and indeed, the entire Greek mythos by Disney. Watching and being fascinated by this movie as a small child planted an interest in my brain that I still have not shaken. Greek mythology became one of my childhood passions. I got every book I could on Greek mythology from the library and read them all until I had to move on to the adult section. As I learned more and more, my Hipster Demon grew strong, and I despised the Disney movie I had once loved, pooh-poohing it for many years as a borderline parody of the original story.

However, as I exposed myself to more and more literature, Greek and otherwise, I began to feel a bit ungrateful to Disney. How could I condemn a work which had functioned as a key for me to the door of Greek stories? If it hadn’t been for this movie, who knows if I would have ever bothered picking up a book of mythology? I watched the movie again for the first time in years, and I suddenly realized that I was in the wrong. While wildly inaccurate, Disney’s Hercules was still a treasure. In this coming of age story, the title character learns that true heroism is love and sacrifice and becomes a great role model for kids in a way that the womanizing, violent Herakles of the original tale never could be. Who was I to criticize? Who knows how many kids like me went and sought out more myths after watching this movie?

And so, I learned a lesson. I flicked the little Hipster Demon off of my shoulder. I decided that faithfulness to source material, while usually a must, isn’t always the point. It’s the actual story that matters. Is Disney’s Hercules a good representation of Greek mythology? Heck no. But is it a good movie with a good story? Yes, it is. Can you like both original myth and censored Disney classic? You most certainly can.

It still annoys me that they used his Roman name though. I mean, gosh, why?